Chapter 11: The Escalation

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Trent was falling.

Twisting, turning, flailing.

He banged against the side of the vent once, twice, three times. Then crashed into something–a vent grate, his mind told him with a flicker of thought–and smashed into something a lot more unyielding.

He landed on his back and though the suit cushioned him from the worst of the blow, the breath was driven from his lungs. He gasped, rolling over to the left, spying nothing but a length of empty, dimly lit corridor, then over to the right.

A lizard man was coming towards him.

Still gasping, he groped for his weapons. His rifle was somewhere nearby, nowhere within reach, and his shotgun had laid against his back. He gripped his pistol and tried to tear it free. It caught on the holster. He tried to scream in frustration, but his lungs were still recovering, and he only managed a weak noise of impotence.

The lizard man pounced for him.

At the last second, Trent ripped his pistol free, brought it up and emptied half the magazine into its chest. The force of the blasts sent it flying back, spraying the walls with silver blood. There seemed to be nothing else alive with him in the corridor, so Trent rested on his back once more, just trying to get his breath back.

After a long moment, his lungs seemed in roughly the same condition they had been before the fall, so he sat up. Everything ached. His back, his limbs, and now he had a bad headache. What a day this was turning out to be.

"Drake?" he asked into the radio. "You okay?"

Nothing. No response. Not even static. A black bolt of panic shot through him. Trent shoved his back against the wall, keeping a vigil along both lengths of bleak metal-and-pipe corridor for anything that might be trying to sneak up on him.

"Drake? Are you there? Anyone?"

Dead silence mocked him. Trent clamped down on his fear. There wasn't any time for it. He could be alone now. What if he was the only survivor? What was that living nightmare? Trent spied his rifle lying a few feet away. He stood up, slowly, painfully, and walked over to it. Retrieving it, he was glad to see that it had survived the fall.

His shotgun, on the other hand, had been partially crushed by him when he'd fallen directly onto it. He was glad it hadn't broken any bones. Trent abandoned the thing, then reloaded both his rifle and his pistol, making sure they were both up to snuff. Satisfied, he holstered the pistol and slung the rifle back over his shoulder, setting it to three-round burst.

Trent looked around. He'd obviously fallen into the maintenance complex that ran beneath the surface of the planet and the facilities. He tried the radio, but there was still nothing on it. His panic subsided into the background, a low-watt electrical current of worry. It would do, for now. Trent picked a direction almost at random and set off, moving down the length of metal corridor. Pipes ran along the walls and ceiling.

He tried to formulate some kind of plan, he was good at that, always had been. It was kind of in the job description for being a mercenary. Guys with low situational awareness or no ability to think for themselves usually didn't make it past year one. Trent was creeping up on his twentieth year, consecutively, as a merc.

Coming to the end of the corridor only granted him access to another crossroads antechamber that bled away into more of the endless, cramped maintenance bays and passageways. He felt like a rat, burrowing just below the surface. Again, Trent chose a direction at random, allowing his mind to sort of restart.

A plan wouldn't come. He couldn't stop seeing that great maw, the hulking figure. It had been a wholly different breed of beast from the things they'd encountered so far on this frozen hell of a planet. What kind of nightmare had they stumbled into?

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